New research has opened up questions that it may be possible to lose your empathetic ability over time or that it could even possibly be increased through training.

These questions were raised because scientists have recently discovered they can physically see people’s empathetic ability on brain scans.

This research has added a great deal of information to the neuroscience field relating to emotion and has opened up questions with regards to two areas of empathy in particular: affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

Compared to people who have a logical reaction to people’s emotions, empathetic people, or those with a strong emotional reaction to others, are found to have denser grey matter in specific areas of the brain.

Researchers at Monash University [1] hypothesised that through looking at images of the brain, they would be able to predict where individuals scored on the affective/cognitive empathy scale based on their neurological structures.

A co-author of the study, Robert Eres, explained [2] that “people who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have a high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example, a clinical psychologist counselling a client.”

The researchers carried out a study of 176 people who took part in a neuroimaging procedure known as voxel-based morphometry which analyzes the density of grey matter in any specific area of the brain. Before undergoing the imaging procedure, the individuals were given a questionnaire to determine their levels of empathy.

The results proved their hypothesis, however, since they found that the part in the centre of the brain named the insular cortex, the part of the brain that controls strong emotions, contained denser grey matter in those who were said to have high affective empathy whereas the participants who scored high on the cognitive empathy had denser grey matter in an area of the brain called the midcingulate cortex and the adjacent dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is just above the connection of the two hemispheres. These findings prove that empathy may be represented by brain structures and cell populations.

This recent development of visible empathy raises plenty of questions as to whether this area of personality can be purposefully adapted and altered. These particular researchers, along with many more I’m sure, hope to study this area further, in particular, the element of causation in future studies.


Christina Lawson, B.A.

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